Once upon a time there was a disruptive technology that took the corporate world by storm. Every executive aspired to own it and badgered their respective managers and IT to provide it across the ranks. The investment was quite high and thus it was rationed off down the hierarchy incrementally. The haves strutted it proudly and for the wannabes it was a classic case of owners envy, neighbors pride. It took a while to become a commodity and then the paradigm changed again. I am referring to mail on the mobile that every executive wanted.
It was fashionable to have a message footer which indicated which device you used to send a message especially if it was not a PC or laptop. Notifications and alerts from these devices ensured that you knew 24X7 whenever a message arrived. Initially due to enthusiasm and then by habit replies were almost instant. Whether in meeting, at a social event, getting the nightly beauty sleep, or traveling including driving, there was an intrinsic urge to respond. The resultant impact to mind and body created rifts in relations, disease forms and cures.
Multitude of newer devices and smartphones eliminated the divide between the privileged and the bourgeois. Consumerization of IT created newer possibilities which the CIOs struggled with; added to this social media addiction completed the digitization of the populace. Armed with multiple devices to separate personal from corporate, the demands on the individual from peers, friends, acquaintances, and the illuminati made everyone a slave in the connected world with pings and vibrations of all kinds vying for attention.
We want to achieve more in lesser time and thus multi-task in a hope that within the same time more will get done. Thus people flit from moment to moment with their attention darting from one thought to another; the flurry of activity divided between competing tasks and priorities. Interruptions now enter less in physical form and more on multiple connected devices attached or surrounding us. The result is that everything ends up taking longer and little gets done which pushes us to do more of the same entrenching us deeper into the quicksand of inefficiency.
Empirical data from numerous studies has proven that attention span stands reduced by 3X over the last few decades and continues its downward spiral. We don’t have time is the pet peeve of busy corporate executives buried under the mountain of unfulfilled tasks and missed deadlines. Numerous apps, email alerts, and push notifications keep us bound to the devices and habitually pressurizes us to take notice and demands action. Unable to comprehend the nemesis they struggle to stay afloat with no evident way out.
Everyone is working harder in their quest to get much done; longer hours has become the norm. Work life balance anyone? Shun the thought and take some work home; get it done while you travel and the rest when you get there. There are no options for the individual; enterprises now have choices from the downsized, unwanted and freelancers; there is always someone who will do it cheaper, faster, probably in the neighborhood or oceans apart. Technology also makes it possible to automate many processes and eliminate the inefficient.
Effectiveness of meetings dwindle and urgency overrides the important with perceived time value of information becoming a key measure even when it influences no change in outcomes. Time is getting filled with activity leaving no discretionary activity possible. People attending “Time Management” seminars find that it sets them back with the time spent. The urgent has overtaken our lives and the important is neglected.
A generation of digital slaves emerges from the shadows; they walk with bowed heads with their hands at diaphragm level holding their (master) devices, attentive eyes glued to glowing screens beckoning them to the inane and unimportant. Some devices strapped to different body parts communicate with other things which in turn influences the slave’s behavior. The promise of a better future keeps the addicts hopeful and asking for more. It is scary that we are beginning to forget what life used to be and what it can be.
Times are getting better for most CIOs with economy looking up, growth back on the agenda, business wanting to create a digital enterprise, the hype around various technologies like Cloud, Social Media and what have you dying away. CMOs and CIOs have figured out a way to work together while CFOs have set the governance on budget management and are not obsessed with Return on Investment as the only measure. IT budgets are beginning to show signs of revival and so are expectations on the new projects and possibilities.
Some mature companies used the lean period to reinvent themselves and re-engineer processes; they invested in refresh of not just the servers and other hardware which could be had for a steal with piled up inventories with vendors, they also used the spare capacity with people to upgrade their ERPs and build new systems. Many CIOs were busier in the last few years than they had been when business was booming. They also started seeing attrition in the team with the job market opening up which added to the challenge.
Good times bring a lot of events, seminars, offsite meetings, and invitations to all kinds of gatherings which have great headlines to attract all and sundry. One of the CIOs whose spouse was traveling mentioned that she hadn’t cooked for a week by just accepting these. Except that they rarely offer any major learning or insight; after a while even the networking turns stale with the same people ending up in every event. It is another matter that the structure of events has remained the same over the years defying logic and evolution.
I was thus surprised to hear about a CIO who never attended any events or seminars or exotic trips that are organized by the friendly vendors. No one had ever seen her in any of the events despite the long years she had put in into the industry. She never responded to any phone calls, messages or emails or any attempts to reach her. It did not matter who was inviting her, Chairman, CEO, Account Manager, she remained a hermit. Her reclusive ways created many stories and not all of them were flattering or positive.
Her team did not know how to react to such a situation; they wanted to network and socialize and get exposure to what was happening in the world outside. They were reluctant to ask as they never saw their Boss ever accept any or go to such gatherings; her demeanor did not invite anyone to venture to ask. New team members who came from different environments found this quite unusual. A few who were bold enough to participate on their own enjoyed the benefits; their rationale, it is better to ask for forgiveness than permission.
So when I met with one of her brave team members I thought I would attempt to unravel the mystery. I was perplexed by what I heard. Her calendar was double booked many times with internal meetings; she was always flitting between meetings without spending enough time to get to the bottom of the issue or to understand the impact or action items. She almost always turned up late for the appointment and would be out of the room no sooner the meeting started with a phone call interrupting her transient presence within the first five minutes.
She spent a lot of time on the phone, but then she never took calls from the vendors and most people internally found her phone busy. Few who had spent long years with her knew it was not her partner. The interruptions had become part of her persona that people no longer saw that as abnormal behavior. Within her company they had gotten used to meetings without her even when she accepted them. Someone dared ask her about the calls; if looks could kill, the poor inquisitive lady would have died on the spot.
Everyone speculated about her leadership, effectiveness, longevity and survival; difficult to comprehend unless your family owns the business or there was a relationship of another kind (neither was the case). Her team was at the receiving end of rebukes while she remained immune to the environment. Her team was adequately effective and the business had limited expectations from her. Working at her lowest level of inefficiency she had rarely been challenged for innovation or transformational leadership.
I wonder what would happen to her should she join another company?
She received an alert from credit card Company of a debit of $50 from the neighborhood grocery store. She panicked and then remembered that it was probably the refrigerator ordering replenishments (My refrigerator has gone shopping). She was however worried about what did it end up ordering. Having finished the orange juice from the last purchase and not wanting anymore, nor the horrible cake that came as an offer last time (She was anyway trying to lose weight). She then received the e-bill on mail and was shocked to see sausages and beef steak! These did not exist in the master list and decided to visit the store on the way back to find out what had gone wrong.
Recently I was at a cybersecurity conference in the country which boasts of the maximum number of IT security startups and companies. They continue to redefine information and cyber security in ways that most of us would find hard to imagine. The new and old are not focusing just to make better antivirus or firewalls or mobile device management solutions; their R&D has transcended conventional boundaries. With Internet of (Every)Things and all kinds of devices communicating with again all kind of devices, the channels need to be secured.
The use cases discussed sounded straight out of science fiction or futuristic movies except that all were stark reality which we are rarely exposed to. The innocuous IP audio-conferencing phone in the meeting room as a listening device or the video conferencing equipment transmitting images or streaming live unknown to everyone. Directional antenna sniffing the airwaves and breaking wireless networks or RFID tags or readers in a manufacturing facility misbehaving and making a mess of the inventory and production plan.
At our homes the number of connected devices is increasing; for me it started with my streaming media box, then the television followed by the gaming console which was fighting with multiple tablet and laptop computers. My new car wants to send messages to the service station when it felt sick and my GPS has a mind of its own routing me through lesser known roads in a quest to get me to my destination faster and screwing up. When I have not finished my daily dose of walking my fitness ban posts on social media embarrassing me.
It is not a stretch of imagination to believe that these devices can be infected with malicious code which may change behavior or purpose. Individuals unknowingly changing their daily pattern or nudged in an alternate direction by compromised devices can impact their professional actions and outcomes. Why do you need to break into a trading system, break the trader, it’s easier! Shutting down an electrical grid is big effort, shut down people or change them; use sensors to hack into the system. I was stunned by the possibilities.
In the future with every device connected and transmitting or receiving information, intelligence is corruptible and creates new scenarios of what can go wrong. Recent demonstrations though not malicious in intent of some highly computerized cars being hijacked predict an unstable future. The ability to patch or secure the large number of devices (estimated at 20 billion plus), company provided or individual owned BYOD enabled will be a veritable nightmare for the enterprise security managers and CIOs.
Enterprises are pushing to create new opportunities that become possible with IoT; some of these maybe seeded with hare brained ideas though I believe many will survive and become the next big thing of tomorrow. I believe that everyone needs to be cognizant of the fact that IoT is here to stay; how we leverage it within our ecosystem will give a differentiated advantage that success stories are made of. Every new hyped technology falls through the trough of disillusionment before becoming mainstream. Stay invested.
She reached the store and challenged them demanding a refund and the fact that they had goofed up majorly. In return they showed her the order which did contain specific brand of sausages and steak. She called the refrigerator company who informed her that the last software upgrade had added social media features and her refrigerator had accepted a request from the specified company to receive promotions. The conversion of the promotion to order was probably a bug which they will investigate and patch the firmware.
I wonder if a virus were to infect the refrigerator, what would it do?
“We are sorry sir, we are unable to accept your order; thank you for calling your favorite dining place.” I am sure you have also received or read some of the messages floating around on social media where the protagonist is unable to order his favorite pizza or pasta or whatever dish you may want to imagine. He is repeatedly denied his request to quench his craving with inferences about his cholesterol or past illness or health insurance coverage; you can imagine the rest as it would probably pan out for the majority of us.
The situation is not too far in the future! In an interconnected world, combination of personal, medical, social, financial and professional data creates new possibilities of analytical correlations that can be used or misused depending on how you look at the situation. Connected netizens fill in void hours in their lives on multiple devices through the day with status updates, browsing for information or clarifications on something that they are unable to comprehend. They leave behind a trail that can be picked up.
We already see this happening with targeted advertisements across various sites depending on our browsing behavior. Would you turn off cookies or stop accessing popular search engines from your mobile? What about all the apps on the smartphone? Some nifty utilities that make life so much easier; finding great restaurants, booking tables, looking up flight schedule or delay. Can these apps pry at other data on your smartphones or the remnants of bread crumbs and widgets start snooping around your laptop or tablet?
I get this weird feeling when advertisements remind me of my visits to some websites like someone has been looking over my shoulder spying on me all along in my public and private moments. So I decided to confuse the intruders by randomly checking for exotic locations which I would never visit or check out merchandise that most sane people would shudder to buy. The trail it created led the crawlies on a red herring trail. I felt elated as if I had won a major war by thwarting the evil shenanigans in their quest to hound me.
Our dependence on technology is slowly and steadily shifting our thought patterns and the way we think. Intuitively we reach out to query a term or gather additional information adding to the vast amount of data we assimilate. We also seek help for simple and complex problems or situations rarely exerting our thinking prowess. I am not sure if this is good or bad, healthy or not, this has become a way of life. The extreme dependence of the newer generation also known as Digital Natives on technology is exciting and scary.
CIOs have struggled with BYOD getting entrenched across their enterprises and made half-hearted attempts to rope in the rogues with Mobile Device Management and other tools. But that is only part of the story; our incessant need to be online across all our devices adds to the trail we leave behind. Most of the providers have become our shadow with embedded trackers hiding their intent in fine print over 30 pages of agreements which no one reads and clicks “I Agree.” And guess what? In most cases we don’t really care.
Every day we are flooded with huge amounts of quotes, stories, posts, pictures, videos sent to us by people we know. No one knows the origin or validity of the content we receive. Are we at the cusp of incremental revolution nudged by technology that is controlled by few who are playing with our decisions? Are our cognitive behaviors are being shaped by some manipulative story teller who is pulling at our heartstrings in ways unknown to us? Are we really in control of our actions and destiny anymore?
The digitization of the world is an eventuality that cannot be wished away. It is gaining momentum every day and encompassing every aspect of our lives slowly and steadily. We are given choices on how we would like to engage with technology but peer pressure breaks down resistance quickly. I wonder if I have a mind of my own as I keep going back to technology to assist me with every step I take. As a kid I read the Orwellian tale about Big Brother watching me; I think the future has arrived stealthily without telling us!
I was at this conference where one of the streams focused on Internet of Things or as some speakers preferred to call it Internet of Everything. Every speaker had statistics on the number of “things” that will connect to the Internet and communicate with other devices or the Cloud; the number range varied from 25-50 billion depending on who you would like to believe. The “things” with intelligence could be for specific tasks or multi-faceted to do a range of activities like personal health monitoring, cooking, cleaning, etc.
Every speaker without exception talked about smart refrigerators which will connect to the nearby or your favorite grocery store and proactively order provisions you consume and debit your credit card/bank. One of the speakers dramatized the situation with driverless cars going to the store getting filled by a human. The collective hypothesis was that this is no longer science fiction but reality as it will pan out by 2020, the year by which the number of 25-50 billion devices would be reached; cars, fitness bands, microwaves, light bulbs, interesting thoughts!
As I thought about it I wondered about the situations in my life. For one I like variety in my food and cannot imagine eating the same stuff every day or week. Probably the refrigerator can be taught to have variety. I also don’t want stuff ordered when I plan to eat out go on vacation or call friends over for a dinner; maybe calendar integration will solve the problem to some extent. I hope that leftovers management, use of partially used open packs and managing short expiry products is part of the functionality.
Let us assume that the refrigerator is intelligent enough to not order one item at a time and creates a list of item taking care of minimum order quantity or bill value to avoid unnecessary shipping charges. What happens when the store does not have the items or in the pack size that I prefer? Will the store substitute another item ? What if I don’t like to substitute? The store supply chain is probably connected to suppliers’ warehouse system which through predictive analytics understands demand forecasts generated by connected refrigerators.
I am a shopaholic and love to spend time in the stores. My young daughter who grew up traveling in the shopping carts still wants to go back occasionally to now push the cart that was her vehicle. In most of these trips we end up buying a lot more than what we had planned. The visual merchandising appeals to the senses and impulsive buys are triggered by material and inane offers that scream at you while you walk the aisles. So what about cross-sell and upsell that is the hallmark of a good store which entices you to fill up?
If the above were to translate to reality all the high street and neighborhood stores would struggle to survive and probably turn themselves into warehouse type stores which don’t need a storefront. It would significantly change the way we shop and ruminate over products on the shelves where we can compare not just the price but other attributes. Packaging could be dumbed down to basic, no need for creative colored eye catching wrappers. How will marketers of new products reach out to me on TV or print when I rarely walk the lanes in a store?
Maybe big data analytics would churn offers to me on the screen of my choice from which I could put it into the refrigerator’s shopping list. I hope that the cold creature (refrigerator) will know its capacity to order only as much as it can store adjusted to my variable consumption pattern. I wonder if my Robot can take out the right quantity of ingredients and cook a meal that I browse and drop it into the task list for the mechanical cook and keep it hot for me when I arrive home. Maybe I am getting a bit ambitious now in my expectations.
The one thing I could not fathom through all the presentations; the bright and intelligent refrigerator knows what to order; the store knows who the order comes from, the car knows where to go to pick up the groceries and brings them back home. I stay on the fourth level of an apartment complex. How do the packages get to my apartment and inside of the refrigerator? Now don’t tell me that the Robot will do the job, as it would end up compromising the security of the house! Even a dumb crook will see the pattern and break the system.
I hope you can fill in the missing link for me.
For every organization that invests in IT there is an expectation that IT will contribute to one of the outcomes from topline or bottom line improvement, customer or employee satisfaction which in turn impacts profits or revenue, operational efficiency or regulatory compliance or a new capability that creates a differentiation in the competitive market. After all if none of these will be impacted then why invest? Many times there are IT investments labelled “strategic” normally endorsed by named consultants specializing in business transformation or strategy, or the Board.
The company hired one of the premier consulting firms to help them with an IT strategy that would align to their growth objectives. They did not have success retaining talent at the top and had a string of CIOs who took up the challenge and left within 2-3 years unable to create sustainable change. Every CIO to his/her credit tried to approach change in a holistic way and when they realized that the inertia from people was strong, processes rigid and everything required measurement, they were unable to sustain the rigor.
The company had always measured every investment using financial metrics and did not believe that IT should be any different. The owners and management acceded to all new technology solutions and investments but many times changed CIO decisions to select the most cost effective solution which offered the highest ROI. Lumped with at times unaligned solutions or vendors who had been squeezed so badly that they ended up cutting corners, the CIOs had not been able to recoup the situation to create visible success.
After quick succession of CIOs they determined that consultants would be able to help them solve the enigma of unsuccessful IT driven projects. After all they had been diligent in their choices, the loyal CFO had worked hard to create models for measurement of success. Their prudent financial decisions had paid off in many functions which is why they wondered why it is not working in IT. The consultants conducted their diagnostics rummaging through history, talking to business, some of the old timers and the IT staff on the journey.
Their report was presented after a few months; there was a lot of anticipation especially within the IT team who saw a ray of hope in the study. The management had a heated discussion with the consultant refusing to believe what was presented. They debated and defended their past actions and labelled the report biased and the consultant ineffective. They still needed a silver bullet and thus decided to hire another competing consulting firm to repeat the exercise. The consulting firm agreed; they were the best and the most expensive.
One of the beliefs that I have inculcated with my teams and others who I have had the opportunity to work with and mentor, is that everything can be measured. Maybe not always using the conventional measurement criteria of Return on Investment or Return on Capital Employed. There is also a category called soft benefits or non-quantifiable returns which has fuzzy terms like better awareness or connect to people with no defined baseline or clear benchmark against which it can be compared. Even these could have been measured with proper definitions.
D-day arrived and the senior partner from the firm was solemnly ready to present the report. They had also reviewed their competitors report. They had insisted that the entire management team be present. There was suspense in the room and a hush as the presentation began. Through the hour everyone listened with rapt attention as their story unfolded in front of their eyes. When the senior partner completed with an air of authority, there were no questions; the data and evidence presented with benchmarks did not require any clarifications.
The company suffered from wanting to get everything at rock bottom prices; for them L1 pricing was the only way to do business. That is how ROI was always best! The CFO being in a position that he was everyone was terrified to do it any other way. In the quest for value they took irrational decisions and displayed the fabled “penny wise and pound foolish” behavior. No one dared point this out and the realization came ironically from the most expensive no nonsense consultants. A lesson learned the eminently avoidable hard way.
Value can be created even from high cost investments while value can be destroyed even when you pay less. Value is a perception of price paid and has nothing to do with the price.
I was introduced to the world of books by my father and nurtured by my English teacher, both kept me supplied with enough books big and small, modern and classics. Drowning in their fictional world, late night sojourns with super heroes and supernatural beings completed my days. Growing up surrounded by virtual friends, as I started working they transformed into management and self-help books in the quest to stay ahead in the rat race. Books were interspersed with other trade publications and in recent times by electronic newsletters.
At the turn of the century and thereafter there has been overabundance of management books on colored oceans, climbing mountains, being different and creating strategic differentiators; I remember meeting many luminary authors in conferences which had a mandatory fixture with one such thought leader. As a young professional I enjoyed these interactions and managed to get autographed versions of their publications. Reading voraciously my collection of knowledge started outgrowing the space in my office.
The story tellers and theorists with their postulations evoked interest in some; rest found good slumber value in the books distributed in the conference. Having read some of their books before meeting them I had a few questions; at times to validate my assumptions and many times to clarify a point or two. There were also occasions where my frame of reference did not agree with the writings resulting in good discussions over drinks. Those with good oratory skills enthralled us, for the rest their message was lost in articulation.
Everyone loves to go on company offsite meetings and sponsored conferences, especially to exotic locations with no agenda, devoid of presentations they have to attend or make. Most people love the fun elements, skits, karaoke, and when alcohol is involved. As a good manager, I too indulged my teams which required everyone to attend with only medical emergencies being accepted and excused. There was always excitement about the event and the agenda; there was also trepidation in equal measure with majority of the team members.
Talking to friends and peers I realized that my situation was unique and none of the others had found such behavior. We compared notes, went through respective agendas and offsites structures; there was no evident difference in what they did to what I did. We discussed locations, team profiles, traveling arrangements, accommodation, and day end activities; there was no material difference that could have pointed to my teams’ variant behavior. I sensed it was not the obvious so I popped the question to my team.
I did not know how to react to the revelation, to me it was unimaginable, but it was their reality. They loved everything that we did starting with preparation, planning, fun and games, what have you; the part they hated is when prior to the offsite a book was given to every team member to read which would be the theme of the outing. They were okay with the books being given post the offsite as giveaways as most of them did not read them, but when they were expected to read before the journey, it gave them sleepless nights.
I discovered that even my CIO friends wondered why I insisted that my team spend precious time in reading these “management” books. Do they serve a purpose beyond the hours being occupied? How does it help understand new technology trends or implement the next system? As it is, there is paucity of time, where do we fit it in our priorities and urgencies which keep everyone busy? Their ignorance was appalling and comparable to kids in my team. I also realized that the few who loved books stood out in their ability to engage their enterprises.
With information overload and explosion of news, views and innovative ideas, unfortunately many professionals have deprioritized reading as an investment over other pursuits. The resultant learning crisis is scary to say the least creating educated but ignorant people whose ability to connect across paradigms is challenged. The electronic media pushes information at our faces, we need to embrace it to survive. If you did not change with online retailing of books and then their electronic versions, it is time now before you are made irrelevant in the new digital world.
It was the first day at work for the CIO in his new company and he was excited about the prospects; the enterprise was one of the early adopters of technology and the business was growing faster than the market. The CIO having gone through multiple rounds of interviews and battery of psychological tests had made it. The first meeting was with one of the CEOs of a business; he arrived early and waited for the CEO. Arriving on time the CEO shook hands and sat opposite the CIO and opened the meeting with the remark, “I hate IT!”
Not knowing how to react, the CIO smiled and commented “Thank you, now that is a starting point.” The meeting went on for the allotted hour after with the CIO emerged with a list of things to fix, projects that the business CEO wanted to execute yesterday, meetings that he had to schedule over the next few weeks with other business leaders and he had yet to meet his team. Wondering about his decision, he walked across to the adjacent building where the next meeting was with his reporting boss and the Managing Director.
As he settled in he discovered the root cause of the bitterness with IT; there were many anecdotes and tales of his predecessor, his interactions with the business, his approach to any new solution and the way he managed the team. He (the predecessor) was the first CIO the company had hired when they needed to leverage the next wave of IT and moving from a local benchmark to being a global benchmark in the industry. Technically competent and extremely articulate, the ex-CIO had everyone eating out of his hands.
No one could have faulted the best of breed technology decisions, validated with more than adequate research from global consultants and industry reports. For his team and the business, he always had answers for any technical problem; his team supported him though they hated his micro-managing style of operation. The resultant rift continued to grow until one fine day the CIO fell into the chasm. Business leaders heaved a sigh of relief and hoped that the new CIO would put in better efforts to understand their viewpoints too.
The newbie met everyone across layers, from shop floor to Boardroom, warehouse to suppliers; he worked with the feet on the ground understanding their pain, met customers gaining insights on drivers of top line. Expectations were set with the teams on key deliverables and measurements with checkpoints on what to report and when. Meeting with key vendors determined traction and connect that he could leverage to move into the next gear. The biggest change was in the attitude of his team and how they approached the business.
Soon he was part of the business teams networking with executive assistants and chiefs with equal ease getting around with a conviction that people accepted at face value. His team liked the empowerment and the freedom; they knew help was at hand whenever they needed it, so was a good word and encouragement. They worked in sync and turned around some of the faltering projects excited by the prospects of growth, visibility and glory; perceptions of IT started its uphill journey towards collective credibility.
The team that was written off by the business shed their reserve coming out into the open with new found confidence built on the foundation of success and the strong shoulders of their leader. They saw a change in behaviour from their customers and reciprocated fuelling the fire of performance taking it to new heights. Internal and external appreciation poured in acknowledging the return to leadership position in an industry. The turnaround was complete, the new CIO had once again been able to bring the function back to relevance.
It was an industry conference on a global stage where the CEO was presenting on the business success and differentiation with help from IT. There was applause in the room after the keynote was delivered; the CEO bowed as his colleague the CIO joined him on stage. As they got off stage they were hounded to discover the secret sauce of the CEO-CIO relationship. The CEO said, “I hated IT a few years back until this guy came on board and changed everything. Today IT contributes to our growth and I love IT.” Both grinned cheerfully and with hands on other’s shoulders walked away.
Footnote: When I wrote about “Living with Bad Hires” many readers wanted to know what happened after the CIO was fired. This is the story of what happened.
“This is crazy but I am loving it,” so said a CIO who had taken on the mantle to transform the way his company uses IT. He had been in the role for a while and his company was one of the market leaders in their chosen industry; they needed a strong dose of really good medicine to shape up the information foundation. Business welcomed him with open arms, he showed them what was possible, he brought all of them together to the common cause; the company began the journey with multiple projects starting in parallel.
The roadmap drawn and agreed upon, the company created a healthy pipeline of initiatives that would leapfrog the reputation of the company and the CIO. His team rallied around him as they saw a future with promise of good days to come. They believed in the vision and toiled sweat and tears to shed the inertia that was the hallmark of the company. Projects rolled and went live building credibility and adding fuel to the fire of desire; the going was good and everyone loved the orchestration that created music they had not heard before.
Another CIO on the table retaliated with her wisdom of focusing on one project at a time and doing it very well with no window for error. She was a veteran herself though not the visible types but staying in the shadows of quiet achievement. Her journey was of incremental innovation staying close to business and efficiently focusing on getting it right eventually made her slow and dependable. Growing with time in familiar territory her rise was a story of “I will do what the business wants even if it is irrational and requires maintaining status quo.”
Working with a monopolistic market leader, there was no real pressure for majority of her career, the global enterprise driving strategy and direction while controlling local innovation in areas that mattered. The rest was about creating solutions that worked to digitize existing manual processes. She had toiled diligently and grew through the ranks doing a fair job of maintaining status quo. By virtue of the years in the company her understanding of the business was good and she had built empathy which helped her.
The two were a study in contrast in their approach to partnering with business and how they created value for their respective enterprises. It was a function of market dynamics as well as individual desire and capability to be a transformational leader. One demonstrated passion and a sense of urgency while the other was happy to be an order taker and wait for something to happen. The group of CIOs present took sides with many inclined towards aggression though most professed that a middle path is the best approach to staying relevant to the business.
A few years later many of us happened to meet again; reminiscences of the last discussion offered an opportunity to check how both had done. The transformation aspirant had slowed down a bit though he was still miles ahead of the conventional pace of implementing technology solutions. He had more or less delivered to promise with the organization struggling to keep pace with the fast track path they had chosen. He was satisfied with the change he had architected and the fact that his company was a much sought after customer by many IT companies.
The lady was struggling for survival, her company having been acquired, new set of expectations, new pace of change, new set of deliverables, all of which were alien to her. Her incremental approach was seen an unaligned to new business speed and the urgency to expand market share and dominance leveraging technology. She was unable to step up having lived a life of a passive though reasonably effective partner to the business. Having worked for one company all her life, she was clutching straws to save herself.
Our collective wisdom could only recommend that she seek alternative pastures before she becomes irrelevant to the company. Her shallow experience did not give her too many choices which she realized. Someone suggested to the aggressive CIO that he hire her to run the operations and business as usual which she was good at. Today most CIOs do take on multiple projects which is the need of the hour to stay relevant; it is a rare luxury to not do so and fraught with danger for the long-term. BAU does not require expensive resources.
Where are you in the continuum?
I was at this social gathering organized by one of the top global consulting companies for their current and potential customers. It had attendance from veteran industry leaders, founders of companies, CEOs and CFOs, sprinkled with a few Venture Capital heads and off-course partners from the sponsoring consulting company. I was the odd man out from IT representing my company; talking to a few known people in the room, introductions were made with some as the discussion veered from world economy to the best wine.
The Black Suits represented a diverse set of industries and functional experience easily mingling with each group and adding to the conversation. Enviously networking at its best, you could pick tips from these suave individuals on how to ease into a discussion and slide off without being rude. Their demeanor would teach many CIOs and CEOs how to conduct themselves in a senior gathering that expects you to merge in without getting technical or talking about IT barring a passing reference to the function you manage.
One of the cases under discussion revolved around a complex merger for a diversified group which was facilitated by the hosts. Everyone applauded the ease with which the deal was consummated, financially and culturally; a Partners remarked about a similar deal gone sour done by competition, stressing on the fact that quality matters when it comes to consulting and a little extra investment is worth the outcome. The wise men nodded and moved on to discuss multiple experiences and anecdotes around consulting that regaled the small gathering.
The comfort of the group with each other and the willingness to share and seek help from various quarters was a bit discomforting; these were industry captains that everyone looked up to. They controlled a large portion of the economy and influenced many strategic directions or shaped policy. They acknowledged the fact that every niche and skill has an expert or master who can do it better, faster, and consistently with successful outcomes. They sought these experts from the outside when they needed them.
That weekend mulling over the few hours spent, the big realization dawned upon me was the difference in the approach to solving problems taken by CIOs. Almost all CIOs believe that they are self-sufficient in their knowledge and skill to solve every problem that needs to be solved or opportunity to be explored using technology. They reach out to vendors and solution providers to discuss options; few subscribe to reports from IT research companies and engage their consultants to assist them. They hire consultants only when pushed by their boss.
Here’s a typical dialogue that happens with CIOs:
- Do you need help with IT strategy or want to validate it? That’s why I was hired!
- Is there a business problem you want us to solve? I know enough about the business to do that
- Need help with any of your sticky projects where you’re struggling ? Everything is under control!
- Are there any skills you need to augment in your team? I will send my team for training!
It is not just the fact that CIOs are averse to seeking help from consulting companies, they even shun away individual consultants typically retired or out-of-work/in-transition CIOs. They are perceived as threats to their credibility and expertise. Why do you need to hire anyone to help you? Not sure how many actually had the courage to go and ask their respective boss to seek external help. This is despite the fact that the enterprise may have a history of engaging consultants for various business activities, strategic or operational.
The strong individual is the one who asks for help when he needs it, said a wise old lady; how true it is in the current context of our work lives with the level of disruptions increasing day by day, expectations rising and uncertainty being the only certainty. Discussing the situation with many of peers I heard the same story again and again; no one wants to be seen as deficient in any skill or capability. All CIOs want to be superheroes, know it all and on top of every situation thereby digging holes for themselves to fall into all along.
In this case I hope CIOs will learn from their peer CXOs, it will help them be more successful.